Ashtanga refers to the eight limbed path of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras. The word Sutra translates to "thread", which means each Sutra is considered the thread of meaning upon which teachers add his/her own "beads" of experience/example for their students.
These Sutras are divided into four sections:
1. Samadhi Pada (Portion on Contemplation)
2. Sadhana Pada (Portion on Practice)
• First five steps of the eight limbs of Raja Yoga
3. Vibhuti Pada (Portion on Accomplishments)
• Last three steps of the eight limbs of Raja Yoga
4. Kaivalva Pada (Portion on Absoluteness)
It is unknown when Pantanjali lived, but studies suggest the date of the Sutras range from 5,000 B.C. to 300 A.D. Since then, his Sutras are the base for different types of meditation and Yoga. Patanjali's yoga is typically known as Raja Yoga, which is a system for control of the mind. As mentioned above, within these Sutras are eight limbs (also known as eight-folded path) which act as guidelines to the path of internal purification, living a meaningful/purposeful life, bringing attention to one's health, providing moral and ethical conduct/self-discipline, and heightening spiritual aspects. The first five act as external aids, and the remaining three act as internal aids.
The Eight Limbs:
1. Yamas - self restraints
2. Niyamas - self observances
3. Asana - practice of postures
4. Pranayama - breath and movement system
5. Pratyahara - sense withdrawal
6. Dharana - concentration
7. Dhyana - awareness without focus
8. Samadhi - blissful awareness & enlightenment
Yamas deal with our behavior, ethical standards, and means to regain balance in life. These act as guides to manage one's own desires and to create healthy relationships within the world. Practicing the Yamas, we create a healthier, holier and peaceful life. Our relationships improve and we reduce the draining of energy when we lead a false and/or unconscious life.
The yamas consists of five parts:
• Ahimsa (non-harmful)
• Satya (truthfulness)
• Asteya (non-stealing)
• Bramacharya (moderation in all aspects)
• Aparigraha (non-possessiveness)
To practice Ahimsa, we choose to limit our cause of pain in physical violence, verbal violence as well as hatred towards ourselves and others. Ahimsa is a great reminder to enhance self love. Here we observe thoughts; what we think about ourselves and those around us is almost as powerful as any attempt to physically harm someone or something. It's important to bring awareness to our actions (including those of others) and practice acceptance without judgement. It's also important to note that protecting ourselves does not violate ahimsa. Practicing the attitude of nonviolence/non-harming (towards self and those around us) reduces insecurity with others, lessens our fear of dying, and brings forth peacefulness and trust.
To practice Satya, we choose to be truthful in our speech, thoughts and deeds. This is when we make the efforts to decrease the amount of being untruthful and truly honor our true thoughts and feelings. Here we practice choosing words wisely and speaking with the intentions of being truthful. When we remain truthful with ourselves and others, we become more in harmony with who we really are. This is because we have been heard and understood, which brings a sense of comfort to develop in our soul. This process grows by encouraging others to act the same, and will help with our relationships and modern day living. We can start by communicating lovingly and truthfully and practicing forgiveness of self and others.
Asteya helps to get rid of the subconscious beliefs that causes greed or hoarding in our actions. It teaches us to believe what we need in life is already within us. We become self-sufficient and no longer desire something outside of us. To practice asteya is to practice not taking more than we need, but what is freely given to us, nor steal someone else's properties. Here we practice respect of the talents of others without feeling jealous or envious. One way to begin asteya is to keep a Gratitude Journal to list all of the things you are grateful for each day.
To practice Bramacharya, one would choose to bring a moderation in all things - to eat consciously, avoid obsessing over food, materialistic needs, and energy of sexuality to maintain a monogamous relationship and to use all of this energy to create, to find, and to joyously express our inner self/Dharma (life path). By control of the self, the conservation of energy is transmuted to the energy in helping one to achieve the higher limbs dharana, dhyana, and samadhi (listed below). Bramacharya is a reminder to use our energy wisely to live a truly fulfilling life.
In Aparigraha, we choose to not become envious of what another person possesses, or even what their title is in life. We limit our comparing of ourself to others and find contentment/acceptance with our own life and possessions. Here we practice letting go of attachments to things such as grudges, materialistic goods, and harmful substances.
Niyamas extend the ethical guidelines of the yamas, except yamas deal with restraints while niyamas deal with our actions or attitudes to live free from attachments that cause feelings of suffering and separation from the whole.
Niyamas also consist of five parts:
• Saucha (purification)
• Santosha (contentment)
• Tapas (austerity)
• Svadhyaya (self-observance, self study)
• Ishvara-Pranidhana (devotion)
Saucha deals with purifying our thoughts, eating consciously, choosing a wholesome and pure diet such as vegan/vegetarian diet or eating in moderation and low in perservatives, acids, pesticides and caffeine. Maintaining clean, sanitary, healthy habits to keep yourself (internally and externally) including your environment clean. It has been discovered that impurities in these areas adversely affect our state of mind. Practicing the asanas (postures) in yoga, breath work practices (pranayama), and meditation all help to cleanse the body and purify the mind. Keeping a pure, clean environment (food, drinks, entertainment, friends) help in not adding any external impurities back into our body as well.
Santosha is accepting and making the best of what is. We remain content, which means neither to like nor dislike. When we are not content in our life, our energy dissipates and we become aggravated, anxious and stressed. Bring attention to where energy is wasted - thoughts, for example. Are they consistently debating over likes and dislikes? Worrying over the future or the past? Remaining unsatisfied with the present moment? In Santosha, we practice remaining calm and content, even through success and failure. Live mindfully in the present moment. Emotional pain comes from resistance to what is.
Tapas builds our will power and personal strength, encourages us to become more dedicated to our yoga practice. In Tapas, we bring conscious awareness and control over or transform our impulses or poor behavior. We change something in our life, most often something we do not want to change, but that will improve and better ourselves over time. This could be eliminating negative habits, addictions or substances, enforcing a healthy diet, bringing determination to pursue healthy daily yoga practices and enthusiasm in spiritual path.
Svadhyaya is studying ourselves through contemplation of our life lessons. We learn from our mistakes, flaws, and weaknesses. When we examine our actions we begin to see our conscious and unconscious motives more clearly. In Svadhyaya, one may study spiritual texts as a guide to our internal world, where our true self remains. It is studying and seeing who we are in the present moment, including the connection we have with the divine. To practice Svadhyaya, we can read and listen to inspirational teachings, reflect upon life with acceptance (if needed, self help books or classes), and practice conscious awareness on and off the yoga mat throughout the day.
Ishvara-Pranidhana is the devotion of practice to a higher power. We let go of our egos and acknowledge that we are all connected. When we open ourselves to the universe, we are able to connect with others around us. Ishvara-Pranidhana is simply asking to look outside of ourselves, trust that there is a greater plan, a purpose, and begin to let go of fears and worries.
Asanas are the physical postures practiced in yoga to improve health, strength, balance, flexibility, self awareness, and much more. This is the most commonly known limb of the eight limbs. Originally, Asanas were created to prepare the body for sitting in a meditative posture for long periods of time. The challenge of these poses can create an opportunity for us to control, transform or explore our thoughts, emotions, faith, concentration, and much more.
Asana also helps to bring the mind still, which can make it easier to practice meditation. It is very important to concentrate on the breath flow (pranayama, which is the fourth limb), when going through asana or sequence. Controlling the breath and postures makes the energy flow through the body peacefully, also bringing about the desired state of health.
Some classes will base their poses on strengthening, stretching, or healing a certain area of the body (such as lower back pain, menstrual problems, shoulder injuries, etc).
Pranayama, in Sanskrit, is "extension of the breath". This also refers to the control of the breath. One may practice a number of breathing exercises as a separate technique and/or integrate pranayama into their daily yoga practice (for example - inhale when the chest is expanding, exhale when the chest is contracting). Here, we gain connection between the breath, mind, body and emotions. Pranayama is extremely beneficial in preparing the mind for meditation.
Pratyahara is withdrawal of senses from attachment to external objects. Withdrawing the senses helps us to become present in the moment without any filters. We have the opportunity to step back and direct our attention internally - observing our cravings and unhealthy habits. When we meditate, pratyahara occurs almost instantly because the mind and senses are so focused on the meditation, not on external objects. Without pratyahara, we will not be able to meditate.
Pratyahara is built through yama, niyama, asana, and pranayama only then to be utilized in dharana, dhyana, and samadhi. It is a pivotal movement on the our path.
Dharana challenges one to single-pointed concentration and focus, which is necessary to reach the final limb, Samadhi. One will fix the mind into an object. As the thoughts begin to wander; do not judge, criticize, or analyze. We learn to let these thoughts go and pull the mind back to the object once more. This focusing develops control of the distractions of the mind. When the gaze is still, the mind is still.
Dharana (previous limb) practices single-pointed concentration, however, Dhyana is a state of being aware without focus. Dhyana is most commonly known as meditation. At this point, the mind is quiet and still, raising perceptions/insights about self and others. It is not required to meditate for long periods of time in order to receive any beneficial results, although that is a goal to work up to. With daily practice of even 10-15 minutes quietly observing thoughts with non-judgement, we learn to connect on a deeper level and feel less stressed, anxious, or worried.
Here, one reaches a stage of enlightenment which can neither be bought or possessed, only experienced. The mind and the intellect stop and experience the truth, joy and serenity. Since Samadhi can be difficult to achieve, it is important to perform all stages in the eight limbs in order to progress to this final stage.